Formed in 1964 by five American GIs stationed in Germany, The Monks differed from other bands of the time in many ways. In 1965 they changed their name from The 5 Torquays, shaved the tops of their heads and began wearing cassocks with nooses as neckties.
But what really got them noticed was their music. Adopting a sound that relied more on rhythm than melody, the band featured a full time banjo player amongst their line-up and are widely credited as being the first band to use feedback as a musical tool, rather than an unwanted accident. Legend has it that Jimi Hendrix was inspired to start using feedback in his sound after seeing The Monks play live. In November 1965, they released the best album to be released in the 60s (fact), ‘Black Monk Time’, which went on to influence the likes of The Velvet Underground, Beastie Boys, The Dead Kennedys, and The Fall.
‘Black Monk Time’ and a compilation of early recordings, ‘The Early Years 1964-65’, will be re-issued in remastered form by Light In The Attic on 13 Apr. We spoke to the band’s bassist, Eddie Shaw, about the past, the present, and the future.
Q1 How did you start out making music?
If you’re asking how I started out making music, I came from a musical family. My aunt used to date Luke Wills of [Western swing legends] the Bob Wills Texas Playboys and when they played at Wills Point in Sacramento he sometimes came to our house. My mother was a boogie woogie piano player. My great uncles were part of [gospel quartet] the Stamps Quartet. My first professional gig was when I was 15 years old. I played dixieland trumpet in the backroom of the Nugget Casino in Carson City, NV at the same time that Wayne Newton [aka Mr Las Vegas] was starting his career with his brother as back-up. Wayne was 12 years old at the time. In the army, I was assigned to the Sixth Army Band in San Francisco. Since it was so close to home and I had to be in the army, I asked for travel. They sent me to Germany where I met the future members of The Monks.
Regarding the band – The Monks. Being in the army, many GIs with musical ability or interest went to the service club where they could check out instruments to play in practice rooms. It was a way to get away from the pressures of being a soldier. I was the drummer in a country band (my first instrument). When I heard three GIs – Gary Burger, Dave Day, and Larry Clark – playing in the service club, they did not have a bass player. Since I did not like playing country music, I decided that rock n roll would at least be a bit more interesting. I was a jazz guy, but there were no jazz guys on the post. I quickly bought a bass guitar, learned the three chord progression that most rock music was comprised of, went to the service club and told these guys that I could be their bass player. I said, “You need a bass”. They agreed and soon, with a drummer in place, we were playing off-post in a GI bar every weekend.
Q2 What inspired ‘Black Monk Time’?
We stayed in Germany after we got out of the army. We were promised full time work. For the first year and a half, we played seven nights a week, six hours on stage every night except Sundays, when we played eight hours (including a two hour matinee). We played one month in each club in different cities, moving at the end of the month to the next club. We played cover songs. The hours were long on stage and when it was on a Monday or Tuesday night, we might experiment. In practice, because we played so loud, we discovered we could do something with feedback. We mostly used it to play pranks on the audience or the club owner. One quiet night in Stuttgart, two men heard us and suggested that we could be the wave of the future if only we developed this sound. We signed with Walther Niemann and Karl Remy, who became our managers. From there we began to experiment with the sound, finding how many ways we could use it, eventually coming to the conclusion that all the instruments were rhythm instruments.
Q3 What process did you go through in creating the album?
We were an unlikely group. In other circumstances, being home, or in a different place, we would have never picked each other to play in a band with. Our musical backgrounds and experiences were very different. Gary had learned to play some country songs, Dave was an Elvis person, Larry had piano lessons at home and played even classical music, Roger was influenced by the swing drummers and Texas swing music, and I was a be-bop trumpet player, who played other instruments. To get to The Monks’ music we first took a song written by Gary and Dave, ‘Boys Are Boys’, taking it from its normal rock and roll sound, deconstructed it, and reassembling it in a cut down version of what it was – only the most important words and the heart of the song remained with the rest thrown away. It had a different feel and sound. Taking a cue from that we began to construct songs from bass and drum rhythms, adding parts to increase tension. Although the music sounds simple, it was not simple to play because of the odd bars, or lengths of passages. In this way, we found that we all had something to contribute in a unique way. The sound was a hybrid and it was ours.
Q4 Which artists influenced your work?
Since I was influenced by Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Coltrane and other jazz musicians, the influence of rock n roll was minimal. In rock, I guess it would have to be someone like Chuck Berry – three chords over and over. More appropriate might be the development that was taking place with the advance of technology – both with instruments, fuzz tones, etc, and the recording techniques that were evolving. The Beatles’ ‘Revolver’ and ‘Rubber Soul’ albums certainly were an influence. Our producer, Jimmy Bowien, did some technical experimentation, allowing us to play at a high volume in the studio.
Q5 What would you say to someone experiencing your music for the first time?
You’re either going to love it – or you’re going to hate it. There is no middle ground. It was sometimes painful to watch the audience in their confusion, and it was sometimes funny, especially when our image would make them react as if we were religious monks.
Q6 What are your ambitions for your latest re-issues, and for the future?
I’m very happy to move on to other things. I have three published books, ‘A Cowboy Like Me’, Black Monk Time’, and ‘Beltrami’s River’. I have a new book about my twenty years after The Monks working as a trumpet player in jazz/funk music, recording in Minneapolis, Chicago, and Nashville with a group sometimes called Copperhead and later named Minnesoda (on Capitol Records). And I’m working with a bunch of independent musicians on a new double CD (one “dada” pop – the other jazz). The group is called The Hydraulic Pigeons. A musician never stops being a musician. All is well.